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Celebrating sickness, ignoring the sick: eating disorders and the hypocrisy of campus culture

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

Editor’s Note: This piece includes descriptions of disordered eating and sexual misconduct that some readers may find distressing.

In her recent column, “Out of control: COVID-19 and disordered eating,” Emma Treadway ’22 outlines the dangers of rampant disordered eating at Princeton and encourages fellow students to speak up about their struggles, both to receive appropriate support and to dispel the lingering stigma and stereotypes surrounding these illnesses. Treadway’s goal is laudable, as is her openness in writing frankly about her own experience. Princeton’s campus culture is, however, anything but supportive to the many students who could follow her example. 

Disordered eating, like sleep deprivation and alcohol abuse, is glamorized and encouraged on campus. Behavior that is diagnosed and treated at an extremely low weight is celebrated in every other body type. We cannot claim to support those with eating disorders and simultaneously encourage disordered eating in everybody else. It is unrealistic to expect students to share or even to recognize their experiences with disordered eating when campus culture tells them that such experiences are normal and desirable. To combat eating disorders at Princeton, we must first confront the environment that fosters them.

As Treadway notes, eating disorders are widespread at Princeton — often masquerading as “wellness” or “clean eating,” a term that refers not to washing one’s hands before dinner but instead to purging one’s diet of whatever food group is currently being held responsible for the world’s ills. Unhealthy and self-destructive behaviors thrive under the guise of “fitness goals.” Prioritizing one’s grades over one’s health is seen not as a concern, but as an aspiration. The ideal Princeton student, it seems, gets straight A’s on an empty stomach and five hours of sleep. 

In one deplorable example of this culture, last year, a Princeton student launched “Plates,” a food-tracking app specific to the Princeton dining halls that was laughably advertised as an aid in pursuing “fitness goals.” In this context, “fitness” is, of course, simply a more palatable word for “weight loss” — in an email sent to residential college listservs announcing the app, every advertised feature focused on controlling food intake. The app’s creator wrote that the launch heralded “no more need to […] worry about your calories throughout the day,” as if this constant worry is part of a normal daily routine rather than the sign of a serious problem. On a campus where obsessing over one’s energy intake is so normalized, how are the many students struggling with eating disorders expected to recover? When disordered eating is diagnosed as an illness, it is suddenly acknowledged as a problem; until that point, it is unquestioningly accepted and often praised. I know of no other disease whose symptoms healthy people openly wish to emulate. 

The widespread ignorance on campus around eating issues means that when students do acknowledge their own difficulties, they are met with misunderstandings and humiliating stereotypes. Eating disorders, particularly restrictive disorders like anorexia nervosa, are misunderstood as vanity gone wrong. They are in fact complex illnesses that can have any number of causes — they may arise from a need for control, as Treadway notes; as a response to trauma, especially sexual abuse or assault; or for many other reasons. Research suggests that they have a significant genetic component as well. 

In the medieval period, well before today’s glorification of thinness as the ideal of beauty, a significant number of Christian nuns and mystics exhibited symptoms of what is now diagnosed as anorexia nervosa, taking religious asceticism to dangerous extremes. Their condition was hardly caused by reading too many glossy magazines. Nonetheless, eating disorders are still dismissed as purely environmental crises of confidence, nothing that a little external validation won’t fix. When I told a friend that I was uncomfortable with my changing body once I began to relax my own rigidity around food, she assured me that I would come to appreciate its merits soon enough: “Boys actually like it when your thighs are a little bigger!” The ironclad argument for recovering from a life-threatening illness: Your body will be more pleasing to men.

Being misperceived as vain or self-absorbed is tiresome and insulting. Being considered incapable of taking responsibility for oneself is something else entirely. As the Brown University philosopher Nomy Arpaly wrote in a 2005 paper in Philosophical Issues, to acknowledge one’s own struggles and thus to have one’s suffering “taken seriously” is to risk the loss of “being taken seriously in another way: to be taken as someone whose mental states can be meaningful and warranted.” To talk about one’s recovery, as Treadway does, is hard enough. To talk about ongoing struggles, however, is not only to face stigma and ignorance, but also to risk being stripped of one’s autonomy and dignity. 

In my own experience, confiding in friends led to some closer relationships, but it also meant that I became a topic of discussions from which I was excluded and the subject of gossip in the guise of concern. Ignorant assumptions, as well as the distortion that inevitably comes with multiple retellings, mean that such “concern” often does more harm than good. In my case, a couple of friends confidently pronounced a diagnosis for which I had never qualified, spread this misinformation among my friends and teachers, and refused to listen to my objection that they had no right to speak for me. After all, ran the condescending logic, I was no longer competent to speak for myself. 

I found myself in the Kafkaesque position of trying to prove the absence of psychological symptoms. When I explained that I did not, in fact, suffer from the specific disorder with which the grapevine had labeled me, my clarification was dismissed as being “in denial.” This is not to say that intervention to protect those with eating disorders, even against their wishes, is not appropriate or warranted — but it should happen with respect for the agency, privacy, and dignity of the person concerned.

The reduction of a human being to a diagnosis is more than an affront — it presents a real risk. Last year, I brought a Title IX case against a University employee whose unprofessional and sexually inappropriate conduct was well known among their students. That person’s defense rested largely upon an attempt to prove that I had an eating disorder — seizing on my previous openness about the topic — and thus to insinuate that my testimony was compromised because I was not of sound mind. My goal, like Treadway’s, had been to destigmatize these issues and encourage open communication. Now I was being forced to prove that I had the mental faculties to recognize sexual exploitation and misconduct for what it was. To “suffer in silence” is, as Treadway rightly says, a dangerous and miserable way to live — but to speak up can, paradoxically, lead to further silencing.

This is not a problem that can be fixed simply by throwing money at CPS for more counselors and shorter wait times, although that would certainly help. What is needed is a shift in campus culture. Prevailing attitudes towards food and exercise allow eating disorders to hide in plain sight and make recovery exponentially harder. Ignorance about the diverse presentations of eating disorders means that people who do not fit the stereotypical image of a sufferer — thin, white, and female — are more likely to go without support; according to the National Eating Disorders Association, Black teenagers are 50 percent more likely than their white peers to exhibit symptoms of bulimia nervosa but are significantly less likely to receive medical attention for it. Students who do openly acknowledge their own struggles must contend with misunderstanding at best and the infantilizing denial of their own reason and agency at worst.

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One step forward came this summer in the form of a new student group, Princeton Body Positivity, which distributed a resource guide via University listservs this week (I contributed to the guide). Perhaps the group’s most important contribution is that the resource guide does not emphasize the vague distinction between normalized disordered eating and clinically recognized eating disorders. Instead, it highlights the damage that restriction and other disordered behaviors can do at any frequency or intensity. Students who meet full diagnostic criteria for a disorder are not the only ones suffering, either psychologically or physically.

I certainly do not mean to encourage anyone to keep their suffering to themselves. If you have an eating disorder or any degree of difficulty around food and exercise, you deserve understanding and support. Unfortunately, at Princeton, you are unlikely to get it. We must radically transform our campus culture to end the normalization and encouragement of disordered eating, dispel widespread misconceptions and stereotypes about eating disorders, and provide appropriate support to those struggling. Only then will the frankness that Treadway encourages be a realistic option for all students.

Rosamond van Wingerden is a senior in the comparative literature department. She can be reached at rcvw@princeton.edu.

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